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Big Men In Small Boats


Federal Civil Defense Administration
Chrysler Corporation Marine Engine Division
The United States Coast Guard

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Major coastal cities throughout the United States, with their massive port facilities and concentrations of industry and population, made probable targets for bomber planes in the early years of The Cold War.  Aware of the vulnerabilities of America's seaboard communities, civil defense planners sought to highlight the resources such areas would have in the event of an enemy atomic attack.  Oceans and inland waterways, for example, could easily allow boats of all sizes to aid in rescue and recovery efforts.  It was this particular point which the Federal Civil Defense Administration focused on when it produced Big Men in Small Boats in

January of 1956. (1)  The film was sponsored by The Chrysler Corporation's Marine Engine Division.  As is apparent by the name, this division of Chrysler had a vested interest in selling marine motors. Interestingly, unlike most civil defense films financed by private industry, Big Men in Small Boats does not pitch a specific product or service.  Instead, it straight-forwardly depicts the many ways boats help in time of disaster.

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The film begins by denouncing the myth that the boating fraternity (or is it a sorority? asks the narrator as the camera pans alongside a yacht full of bathing beauties) is nothing but a pack of sea-going playboys.  The same sailor who can sew a tarpaulin or tie a Marlinspike line can stitch in first-aid.  Hands which can repair a hull can just as easily build a stretcher or participate in rescue work.  The man who can cook breakfast for six on a vest-pocket stove in a galley is needed in an emergency kitchen.  In short, nautical skills translate very well into civil defense.  This has been shown time 

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and again, from the rescue of countless civilians in New England floods to the evacuation of The British Army from the shores of Dunkirk by "weekend sailors".  Should a thermo-nuclear weapon detonate over an area with navigable waterways, destruction and damage could extend over twelve miles from a target center and radioactive fallout could disperse hundreds of miles beyond that.  Presenting maps to the viewer, a suit-and-tied civil defense official offers the blunt advice that the best way to survive an atomic attack is to "not be there".  The film further reinforces the idea of evacuation by explaining how the nation's radar systems will ensure adequate warning time.

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For those unable to escape either blast or fallout, small boat sailors will be ready to help.  The scene switches to the aftermath of an atomic attack on an unnamed city.  In a civil defense headquarters located on an urban dock, The Skipper, a chain-smoking man with a civil defense armband, directs his crew.  His volunteers are gruff men, with the exception of the comical Tubby, who is heavyset and wears thick glasses and a tin helmet.  The actor playing Tubby previously portrayed a disgruntled shelter occupant in the 1955 F.C.D.A. production Bombproof.  The Skipper's district is heavily damaged and he

Bombproof.  The Skipper's district is heavily damaged and he receives word that nearby Woodrow Wilson School has collapsed.  Their mood is somber, as many of the men graduated from there.  Before they can dwell on the loss, a team of radiological monitors arrives requesting boats to take them upriver into the city to measure fallout levels.  The Skipper gives them priority on a small vessel to travel through a navigable creek.  Exciting, fast paced sequences depict their mission, working in tandem with the boat captain to relay their findings to appropriate authorities via marine radio.  Additional scenes show women in power crafts delivering medical supplies and mobile kitchens feeding the hungry in "food boats".  As the film concludes, Tubby, much to The Skipper's disdain, asks to be transferred to a food boat.  Beginning in the late 1950's, many civil defense films were declared obsolete, often due to the fact that they neglected to address the threat of radioactive fallout.  Big Men in Small Boats, despite devoting several minutes of screen time to radiological missions, did not escape this fate.  Although the film does show radiological survey teams in action, it does not discuss the notion of long-term fallout protection or shelters, which became the major focus of civil defense programs by the later 1950's and early 1960's.  By 1959, citing "continuous modifications in non-military defense planning", the Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization (successor agency to the F.C.D.A.) would recall all government prints of the film and encourage owners of private copies to cease all screenings.  (2)

Big Men in Small Boats may be viewed, in its entirety, HERE.


1. Federal Civil Defense Administration.  Annual Statistical Report.  1957.  124.
2. Office of Civil and Defense Mobilization.  Motion Pictures on Civil Defense. Aug. 1959. 15.

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